A castle in Silesia

Ksiaz castleKsiąż is a magnificent castle sitting on the top of a hill in the heart of a huge wooded park. Apart from its intrensic fascination, it is spiced with all the ingredients that would make its story a bestseller: history, power, wealth, beauty, incest, Nazism, and war. I learnt about its existence at the tourist office where a brochure recommended a visit and while I was in Swidnica I decided to give it a try.

From the bus stop it was a few kilometres' walk through the thick forest. Sunday walkers and joggers were enjoying the open air in the cloudy morning. I crossed a massive wrought iron gate and followed the signs to the vantage point. The long path had been a necessary preparation for the moment when I stood beholding the great building at some distance on the knoll. It looked imposing and still graceful, a man-made creation in the midst of all this harsh nature besiedged in winter by polar cold. I am not usually a fan of palace interiors: their heavy decoration seems a sterile effort to impress, but beauty and harmony are often forgotten beyond hope. So I didn't expect much from the visit, but I was engrossed as if I was reading a pageturner.

But this castle now shines through the faithful reconstruction of its rooms after WW2 devastations. As its convoluted history came to life through the visual narration offered by its spaces, furnishings and fixtures, I discovered the fascination of its land. Schloss Fürstenstein it was called when Silesia was part of the German Empire, and it remained in the possession of the same family for over 400 years. But the last tenants were the most intriguing as their story was told in full detail also through black-and-white photographs. Theirs was already a time, at the turn of the XIX century, when motor-cars, photography and other modern inventions were available to the upper classes.

The residence did not belong to just an upper-class family, but a princely one. The Hochberg, one of the richest families in the German Empire had an immense wealth with assets ranging from coal-mines, spa resorts, factories, lands and much more. Prince Hans Heinrich XVII got married to an English aristocrat noted for her great beauty, but their marriage was not a happy one. Daisy was at odds with the formal court etiquette and her husband's interests were not her own. In spite of three children, the famous 7-metre long pearl necklace (an astronomically expensive gift which was rumored to have brought the princess ill luck), a carefree life of trips abroad and mundane events, Daisy finally got a divorce in 1922 and in 1943 the former princess passed away at the age of 70 in modest conditions.

Meanwhile the prince had embarked in a terribly expensive renovation of Książ and the construction of the palm house. The consequent financial exposure and unlucky circumstances brought the Hochberg family to suffer a downturn. Nevertheless Hans Heinrich remarried, this time to a Spanish lady, but wealth was not to offset the 20 year difference between them. His second wife had a secret affair with one of Daisy's sons and when the facts came to light, the father made his traitorous son marry his stepmother.

Poland235Hans Heinrich fled to England with the outbreak of WW2 and in 1941 the castle was requisitioned by the Nazis who turned it into one of bases of the cyclopean Project Riese. The mysterious scheme consisted in a network of underground tunnels dug by POW's and concentration camp inmates, but its ultimate aims were never made clear. Under Książ the tunnels were thought to serve as a secret headquarters for Hitler himself, whereas in other locations they may have been designed to host underground armament factories. A fact is that the construction of the concrete-reinforced tunnels absorbed an incredible amount of cement and is connected to the death of hundreds of forced labourers who worked in appalling conditions.

So many events took place around these woods. After the war the castle lay abandoned until it was restored from ruin and turned into the museum of its former inhabitants. I looked at one of Daisy's photographs, the one she had taken in the snow with her three sons sitting on a sledge, she smiling in her white black-speckled ermine fur coat. Below, were handwritten Christmas wishes to her English family. It may well have been a smile of circumstance.